Palestine, Iraq, and American Strategy

REMOVE THE WEDGE?

When toppling Saddam Hussein rose to the top of the Bush administration's foreign policy agenda, a chorus of voices protested that Washington had misdiagnosed the root cause of its Middle Eastern dilemmas. "It's Palestine, stupid!" was the refrain heard not only from European and Arab capitals, but from some quarters in the United States as well. These voices argued that attacking Iraq while the Israelis were reoccupying Palestinian lands would substantiate the claim, already widespread in the Middle East, that the United States had declared war against all Arabs and Muslims. The ensuing backlash would undermine the American position in the region and wreak havoc on American interests. What Washington really needed to do was postpone or abandon a showdown with Saddam and focus instead on achieving a breakthrough in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

Unqualified U.S. support for Israel, the critics reason, drives a wedge between Washington and the Arabs, most of whom support Palestinian aspirations; for the United States to improve its regional position, it must remove the wedge by tilting somewhat toward the Palestinians. The problem with this argument is that it rests on two hidden and faulty assumptions: about how much Washington would have to change its stance, and about how much goodwill that change would produce.

Unfortunately, Americans and Arabs nurture such different conceptions of what constitutes a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it is hard to imagine Washington ever adopting a policy toward it that would be truly popular in the Arab world. The most "pro-Palestinian" policy realistically conceivable would look something like the Clinton plan presented in late 2000, but even this would entail major Palestinian compromises (such as the renunciation of the right of pre-1967 refugees to return to their homes inside Israel proper). Under the right conditions, a handful of Arab leaders might be induced to endorse such a settlement, but they would be denounced by others as puppets of Washington and the Jews. Suicide bombings would very likely continue, and the United States would still find itself entangled in a passionate communal conflict. The Palestine wedge would thus remain in place -- smaller and less troubling, perhaps, but a wedge nonetheless.

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